Mr. Abelson, editor, writer, and lifelong student of economic and social problems, is now an executive in the copy department of Compton Advertising, Inc.
About 2,300 years ago Aristotle described man as the uniquely "political animal." He went further than this, of course, and elaborated the precise political and other arrangements which he considered suitable for the human community. And in his scheme of things he included human slavery as a "natural" custom because "on grounds of both reason and fact, from the hour of birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule."
Plato’s star pupil, for all his brilliance, could not reason beyond the limited biological data available to him. He did not know, for example, that man is not the only species with a political and social history which includes "natural slaves." A nonhuman instance is that of the Polyergus, a species of ants which has been completely dependent on a slave system throughout the millions of years of its existence. Aristotle might have been impressed by the fact, brought to light through modern research, that the Polyergus "from the hour of birth . . . are born to be masters." Their jaws are like sickles, excellent for fighting but almost useless for manipulating food in the tiny quantities they require. They need to be fed by other ants who are "from the hour of birth . . . marked for subjection."
So they raid and subdue the appropriate species and continue to perpetuate a neat social setup in which the higher-born perform the noble arts of warfare and political management while the lower-born toil at the essential chores of sustenance—an arrangement not anatomically too unlike the social system prevalent in Aristotle’s time. Here was an example, taken from the unyielding and unalterable rules of nature itself, which Aristotle could have pointed to as a paradigm for his own contrived human system. Perhaps he would have done so, for he did not understand how wide and deep is the gulf between the meanest human slave and the highest subhuman animal.
The slave system of the Greeks—and of other advanced civilizations—came and went, while that of the Polyergus still lives on, seemingly destined to continue indefinitely into the future. Why should this be? Why should slavery be a fixed custom among these social insects and a fluid one in the human community? We find the answer in elementary and elemental biological facts, facts which are not often looked at sharply enough to reveal their profound significance for human social thinking.
Of Ants and Men
Ever since—and perhaps before—King Solomon admonished sluggards that they "go to the ant . . . consider her ways and be wise," men have been practicing the intriguing art of formulating analogies between ant and human societies. And, of course, they have found in those analogies warnings of impending human debacle and lessons for the reform of our own social ways; for the ants are remarkably successful as social creatures. Their unwavering industry and unquestioning adherence to effective social customs have left them free from the convulsions and upheavals suffered by human societies throughout the ages.
The ants have no problems in their interpersonal relationship. They undergo no internal social cataclysms. They have no jails, no corrective or psychiatric institutions. They are never bedeviled by juvenile delinquency nor by any of the other personal and social difficulties which have made social work so urgent and important in the human community. Each member of each of the 1,500 or more species of ants is born with a predetermined place in the social structure, and he keeps his place without complaints and without regrets. By virtue of unremitting industry and an unfailing capacity to do exactly the right thing at the right time the ants build homes and communities for themselves that serve their purpose of survival to perfection. And they have been performing these marvels of social organization for millions of years, with every prospect of surviving in the same way for millions of years to come.
The simple biological fact is that the ant society has an organic structure entirely unlike that of the human community. Each ant is, in a realistic sense, an organ of the total group which in turn depends for its survival upon the effective functioning of its organs, just as an individual body depends upon the functioning of its vital parts. Though ants do have diverse habits and individuality, these characteristics are limited in their expression to performance of predetermined tasks. There is no social mobility in an ant community, no opportunity to alter the biologically established customs. Even if an especially talented ant were to arise, it could not reorganize this rigid communal structure without performing unimaginable biological miracles. And in that case the ants would no longer be ants.
Humans, on the other hand, exhibit no such biological rigidity. We are born, it is true, with limited or definable physical and psychological abilities, but these, despite Aristotle, do not fix our status or capacity for status in the social organization. Even the most humble slave in ancient Greece had feelings and desires, potential and actual abilities incomparably and irreversibly different from those of the ants—and from all other subhuman creatures. No individual human being is born to be a plumber or a playwright, though experience may show that one or the other occupation may, indeed, be the most rewarding possible in terms of aptitude and because of environmental opportunity. But that is the point: we cannot know what a given human is best fitted for until he has had the widest possible opportunities to explore his interests and test his capacities. Moreover, we know now that heredity is not all-limiting; cultural situations often draw out unsuspected abilities, if not in a given individual, often in his children. A quite ordinary male and an even more ordinary female can—and did—become the parents of a Da Vinci. Such an astounding change in one generation is unthinkable and impossible in an ant society or among any other creatures except man.
We can see, then, that Aristotle’s concept of an ideal master-slave society is inapplicable to humans however much it may stand up as descriptive of certain insect societies. The human being is biologically unfit for a rigid social structure; in the very nature of his total being he requires a plastic or fluid environment if he is to succeed in utilizing his potentials, potentials which are not even remotely existent within any other species.
But what about the vast amount of evidence, adduced by modern investigators, which so definitely reveals a "human side of animals"? Comparative psychologists and scientists in related fields have convincingly proved that apes have thinking capacity, birds an aesthetic sense, rats the ability to learn, to mention just a few of innumerable such instances tending to indicate that in the final sense man is unique in degree rather than kind.
The Uniqueness of Humanity
Even if we accept the conclusion that man is nothing more than an advanced animal, the degree of his advancement is so great as to put him beyond comparison with lower animals in terms of the scope and richness of life’s opportunities. It is only necessary to repeat for the record that man’s capacity for abstract thinking, his improvisation and accumulation of culture, and many other features establish his remarkable uniqueness in the world of living creatures. By comparison with man’s achievements all human-like faculties discovered in lower animals are of the most rudimentary sort and just barely measurable. However, the cataloging of these evidences of man’s uniqueness is only a way of looking at effects. Why does man improvise and accumulate? Why does he so restlessly keep changing his way of life? Why does he roam the world—perhaps the universe!—forever altering the face of natural things?
Questions such as these cannot be finally answered until the mystery of existence itself is unveiled. Yet we can answer them for practical purposes in terms of a "mechanical" feature of man’s inherited equipment.
Thus, Aristotle classified about 500 separate and distinct species of living creatures. Today, that once formidable catalog has grown to include more than one million species. And the enlightening fact is that man and man alone among all this vast array of creatures possesses an inborn need to satisfy new, cumulative, and accumulating desires not directly related to the maintenance of life itself. Nowhere among the million or more of man’s fellow creatures on earth has this characteristic been discovered, even in rudimentary form.
Desire for Change
This implacable desire for change and variety is the inborn motive force which puts man’s advanced brain capacity to work. It is the lever which has lifted humankind above the level of barbarism. It is the necessity which becomes the perpetual mother of invention. It is the irrepressible conspirator which contrives to keep the cauldron of dissatisfactions forever at a boiling point. It is the magician which compels concepts like "old-fashioned" and "out-of-date" to arise from nowhere. It is the progenitor of boredom and, at the same time, the counterforce of inertia. It is the supreme artisan which has made of the basic problems of biological survival—sustenance, sex, and threat of attack by other creatures—a means instead of an end. It is the component of man’s biological inheritance, for all its mystery, which has given him the incentive and the power to overcome his physical insufficiencies and to outwit all other creatures and nature itself in the struggle for survival. Without it man would be nothing more than a tricky sort of animal, capable of performing ingenious but sterile mental feats, yet incapable of surviving the grim physical battle with other creatures far superior in mass and muscle.
Man is not satisfied, except at the lowest levels and under extraordinary circumstances, with mere survival. Like the lower animals he must meet the vital, strictly biological, and primary needs of keeping alive. But, for one thing, he satisfies or attempts to satisfy these needs with extraordinary embellishments. For another, he looks upon them only as necessary chores required to establish a base for true living. And the ambit of this truer or higher life includes derived, acquired, and secondary needs, needs that are psychological, socially invented, discretionary.
Beyond the Bounds of Necessity
This seeking of satisfactions that are outside the scope of necessity comprises the essentially human part of human beings. However sharp may be the anatomical and physical analogies between man on the one hand and other creatures on the other, however intriguing may be human and subhuman psychological similarities, this drive remains to mark the startling uniqueness of humankind. Wearying, imponderable, often frightening, it is still inescapable; we cannot turn our backs on it, we cannot attenuate it, we cannot live without it.
There are, of course, social philosophies and religions which belittle, or minimize, or seek to deracinate this uniquely human characteristic. In the cause of either peace or salvation of the soul they propose a life of denial and rejection, a "return" to simple ways in which bare physical survival and minimum comforts supposedly would provide an environment conducive to the development of a state of mind more in tune with man’s spiritual needs for this world or the next. But in the long run they are fighting a losing battle: this strange and unremitting drive manifests itself in a way that will not be denied. Where in the world today are there more than feeble protests against the onrushing advance of a technological culture which promises an unpredictable flow of "better things for better living”?
Surplus for Progress
A more urgent problem in our attitude toward the human side of human beings is presented by collectivistic economic and social theories. Until the technological break-through of this century—accompanied or made possible by the mass-oriented character of the American economy—the question of survival itself was the most pressing problem faced by the great mass of mankind. The satisfaction of discretionary desires and the enjoyment of refined comforts were luxuries reserved for the few. It is understandable that under such circumstances economic and social theories would arise designed to "spread the wealth" and assure a more decent survival for the many. Since survival as such must precede development of the refinements of human life, there is no logical basis on which exception can be taken to this goal.
However, in seeking this goal the tendency has been to lose sight of the broader human horizons. In correcting the evils of an uninhibited individualism there has been a movement in the direction of forgetting the individuality of each of the mass of mankind. In concentrating on the common denominator requirements of survival, collectivistic theories have tended to neglect consideration of individualistic needs and opportunities required by the biological fact that each human being is an extraordinarily unique member of the astonishingly unique human species.
The Unplanned Benefits
It has been said before, but certainly can stand saying again, that central economic planning, however well-intentioned, can provide, if at all, only for minimum needs and commonly-shared essential services. Even this is a theoretical matter. No collectivistic economy thus far has proved its ability to accomplish this basic aim of assuring a decency level of survival for its members. But in the event such an economy should succeed it could go no further, for the complexity and spontaneity of individual human desires present a calculus of permutations and combinations beyond solution except by individuals, each acting freely on his own behalf.
Ultimately, it is the unplanned benefits of an economy rather than the planned welfare which comprise the area of man’s opportunity to transcend survival as such and fulfill his human potentials. Offhand it might seem as if an ideal economy could be improvised in which survival needs were assured by central planning in such a way as to leave the quest for nonvital satisfactions in the hands of individuals. The difficulty here is that humans, unlike other animals, vary to an astonishing degree in their choices of items required to satisfy vital as well as nonvital needs. And the fact remains that the temperamental component of humans which accounts for this situation is as much a part of their biological heritage as is the more complex brain in which this temperament has its seat.
It is only necessary to look closely at the biological nature of man, temperamental as well as physical, to realize that the free economy is not an incidental contrivance of self-seeking men. Man does not really know what he wants. "This is a place of hope," wrote Thomas Carlyle, "and man, properly speaking, has no other possession but hope." Man "makes up his mind" as he goes along, placing great value on some desired thing one day and calling it valueless the next. Some items he values for the utility of the moment; others he treasures because they satisfy a vague craving. His life, as an individual and as a species, is an experiment in searching for an undefinable denouement or salvation.
New Adventures in Living
In the course of the few thousand years during which man’s truly human side has asserted itself he has altered his way of life numerous times, accepting status and stagnation only when repressed by ignorance, fear, or force. But sooner or later he releases himself from the shackles of an imposed routine and strikes out for new adventures in living. The free economy is the manifestation of man’s biological need to seek satisfaction of diverse and unpredictable desires and through this process to make progress toward some higher goal. In efforts to escape from the uncertainties and burdens of his restless nature man may—and obviously does—experiment with planned economies. Such economies bear within themselves the most potent contradiction possible: a conflict with the irresistible biological necessity of their members. Barring an unthinkable reversal of the human make-up, they are destined to fail.
Does this mean that there is no possible solution of life’s problem that promises stability, security, release from the pressure of pyramiding desires? It probably does. It does not mean, however, that man cannot achieve a high degree of stability and security. However, it would have to be a stability based on recognition of his unique character and a security that is based on functioning effectively according to that character. Instead of fearing and attempting to reject and escape from his uniqueness, man can utilize his special brand of courage—moral and intellectual—to face his special problem. He can accept his uniqueness for what it is, embrace it, envisage its promises, and prepare himself to make those promises realizable.
In any case, because the human side of human beings will not be denied, in the long run the free economy, in one form or another, is here, if not to stay, at least to return. This is a biological imperative which inevitably takes precedence over the transitory "historical necessity" of collectivist doctrines.
Ideas On Liberty
It is my confirmed opinion based upon diverse considerations and upon prolonged thought, that one of the most constructive and harmony producing moves that we, as inquiring human beings can make, is to get acquainted with, in the most scientific manner possible, the inherent differences that exist among members of the human family. . . . Why choose our own schools, our own amusements, our own books, our own church? Why not have someone tell us what to eat, what to drink, whom to marry, and when we can have children? The fundamental reason is that each of us is a different individual—with profound differences—and each of us wants to live his own life. . . . There is not the slightest danger that humanity will put up indefinitely with any scheme which involves thoroughgoing regimentation. It is not human nature to tolerate this. There are too many potential Patrick Henrys, and they will continue to reproduce.
Roger J. Williams, "Chemical Anthropology—An Open Door" from American Scientist, March 1958